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How does a VPN protect you on public Wi-Fi?

Staying connected is now more of a necessity than a luxury for many people. Public Wi-Fi is a god-send for those who are constantly on the move or on a strict data plan. However, can you be certain that these public networks are as secure as your own back at home?

Charles Whitmore

Charles Whitmore

May 06, 2021 · 5 min read

How does a VPN protect you on public Wi-Fi?

Public Wi-Fi networks are the perfect targets for hackers – most lack even basic security measures, and many more attract potential victims in droves. If the free internet access provider doesn’t ensure your security, you must.

Does a VPN protect you on public Wi-Fi?

A VPN is one of the most robust and secure methods you can use to protect your devices – it was practically made for use with public Wi-Fi.

It sends your traffic through an encrypted ‘tunnel’, making it extremely difficult to decipher or intercept. Having an app on the devices you use to connect to a public network will provide you with this encryption on-the-go. We always recommend using a VPN on free public Wi-Fi hotspots.

What information is at risk when using public Wi-Fi?

The main way a hacker can take advantage of the lack of security on public Wi-Fi is through stealing your personal information. This can be anything like:

  • Your email login.
  • Your bank login.
  • Your personal photos and videos.
  • Your home address.

If you connect to public Wi-Fi without a VPN, you could potentially be leaving yourself open for criminals to access any sensitive data stored on your device.

Below is a list of ways a hacker can take advantage of an unsecured Wi-Fi network:

  • Evil Twin attack. It’s easy to rename routers to literally anything. Cybercriminals will create fake Wi-Fi networks to fool you into connecting. You’d probably connect to a public Wi-Fi called “Starbucks_Wifi_Free” in a heartbeat – without knowing that a hacker might be running it.
  • Malware injection. An insecure connection may result in difficult-to-detect malware slipping into your computer. It can steal your bandwidth, damage your system, and provide hackers with a backdoor to all your personal files.
  • Man-in-the-middle (MITM). The cybercriminal places their device between the connection with your device and the Wi-Fi spot. This discreetly allows them to monitor your activity and even control your traffic, potentially redirecting you to a site of theirs that will fool you into entering your credentials or banking details.
  • Wi-Fi sniffing. More of a passive act rather than an active assault like MITM. With the use of basic and legal software, a hacker can monitor and log all data packets passing through a Wi-Fi network.

Using VPN on public Wi-Fi will render all of the above attacks useless. The encryption process effectively shields all your data from prying eyes. While the would-be hacker will be able to see that you are indeed connected to the internet through public Wi-Fi, they won’t be able to see the details of the traffic transmitted.

Estimates say that 81% of Americans use public Wi-Fi regularly. However, only 1% of Americans enable a VPN to enhance their security while on public networks. The number of people using a VPN when connected to Wi-Fi is slightly higher in France (2%) and Germany (6%).

VPN use on public Wi-Fi

Surprisingly, almost half of Americans surveyed believe that public Wi-Fi is safe and doesn’t require additional precautions. This is a dangerous attitude and might cause users a lot of trouble in the long run.

Adults who feel safe on public networks

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Can a public Wi-Fi provider see your browsing history?

Yes, a public Wi-Fi provider can potentially see your browsing history. It’s not a given because it depends on the router they are using. But modern Wi-Fi routers keep logs – what domains you visited and for how long. And if you browsed in a webpage without proper TLS/SSL encryption, they would also log the exact pages you read and the information you entered.

On mobile devices, it gets even more complicated. The Wi-Fi owner can see who you called or texted online, which apps you used, and for how long.

How to stop a public Wi-Fi hacker with a VPN

The main way to prevent any hackers breaking into your devices via a public Wi-Fi network is to educate yourself. Once you’re aware of the risks that face you, you’ll also be up-to-date with how to prevent them. Here are the things you need to remember:

  • Disable automatic connections. If you regularly take advantage of every public Wi-Fi node you can find, you may inadvertently latch on to a network you weren’t planning to.
  • Don’t carelessly connect to any public Wi-Fi. If you’re using the public Wi-Fi network of a popular fast-food restaurant or coffee chain, ask the staff for the exact name you need to search for.
  • Don’t log into any sensitive accounts. When tethered to public Wi-Fi, don’t use the connection to access any accounts that hold information of a sensitive nature. If any hacker is sniffing around that network, your details may have just been picked up.
  • Turn off file sharing and check your firewall. Simple checks that often get missed. While file-sharing is helpful in your own network at home, having it turned as you’re connected to a public Wi-Fi network is a formula for bad news. Make sure your anti-malware software is also active.
  • Get a VPN. We’ll explain why having a VPN security is crucial.

With so many VPN service providers out there, it’s hard to make the correct choice. While you may want to gravitate towards free services, they often make their money from selling your details to third parties. Alongside this flaw, free VPN options often place monthly caps on users' speed and data usage.

The best choice would be to buy a subscription service – you know exactly what you’ll be getting for the money you pay. Here’s what you get with NordVPN:

  • Trusted security. There’s a reason NordVPN won best VPN of 2019. As anyNordVPN review will tell you, our product is dependable and effective.
  • Strong encryption. Our servers are secured with an AES-256 cipher – the same kind of encryption that governments use for their own systems.
  • Stronger encryption. If the promise of one of the highest forms of encryption isn’t enough for you, then you can choose to run your traffic through 2 different servers using Double Encryption.
  • Widest coverage. NordVPN offers physical servers located in countries, more than any other premium VPN provider.
  • No logs. A strict no-logs policy reassures you that your private information will never be privy to any third parties.
  • Easy setup. Once NordVPN is installed on your device, all you need to do is select a server. All it takes is a button press.
  • Protection for up to 6 devices. NordVPN allows you to secure all your personal devices or share it amongst your loved ones.
  • Protection against malicious threats. The CyberSec feature will automatically stop you from entering blacklisted sites. It will also stop invasive auto-play ads.

Hackers are hard workers too – don’t let them access your sensitive information.

Subscribe to NordVPN today and get a 30-day money back guarantee.